I’ve always considered this simple little poem to be allegorical. I don’t want to fall victim to the temptation of reading too much into it, but the poem comes at an important point in history and frankly seems to lend itself to multiple levels of meaning; even more so than many of Stevens’ other works. Obviously this approach has its weaknesses, but I’ll let the reader be the judge of how far to take this poem, and where this allegory starts to unwind.
Before we begin, here are a few definitions.
Maunder: to move, talk, or act in a rambling or aimless manner.
Whetting: to sharpen (a blade) or stimulate (a desire or appetite) .
Hacker: a tool for rough striking or cutting.
Abash: to cause to feel embarrassed, disconcerted, or ashamed.
Labials: words or sounds (phonemes) spoken using the front of the mouth, particularly the lips (e.g., the “p” in power, the “w” in way, and the “oo” sound in new) . Gutturals: words or sounds spoken using the back of the mouth or the throat (e.g., the “g” in guard and the “k” in kill) .
My first reaction to the poem is to notice the apparent meanness of the three girls and the innocent awkwardness and vulnerability of the giant. He maunders down the road, apparently sharpening some kind of blade that presumably will be used for a harvest or to cut back weeds or other vegetation. There’s no hint that he would use that blade on a person or for violence. He’s completely unsuspecting, even naive. What on earth did the giant do to these girls that he deserves to be ambushed, insulted, embarrassed, checked, and undone? Or, conversely, what do the three girls hope to achieve as a result of their plot? It appears that insult, embarrassment, and undoing are the sum total of the three girls’ goals here. It is perhaps just sport for them. I would note also that we never really hear what the Giant’s reaction to the plot is.
Commenters have said that Stevens was nicknamed “the Giant” during his years at Harvard. If so, then the poem could simply be a personal reflection on Stevens’ awkwardness around women while he was in college. Stevens was born in Reading, Pennsylvania, at the time a largely agricultural community, so he might characterize himself later in a deprecating fashion as a yokel.
Certainly it is possible (maybe even advisable) to leave it at that: a personal reflection on Stevens’ youth and his awkwardness; and a comment on the attitudes of some young women with whom Stevens was acquainted. However, I also believe the poem can be interpreted on a political level, as follows.
The poem was written in 1917 when Stevens was about 38. In April of that year, after witnessing three years of continually escalating war in Europe, the United States finally declares war on Germany and joins the Allies (Britain, France, and Italy) against the Central Powers (Germany, Austria, Hungary, and Bulgaria) . Russia, weakened by invasion and internal strife, is becoming less and less of a factor in the war at this time. Britain and France are under a German blockade. Germany has been engaged in unrestricted submarine warfare, has sunk U.S. merchant and passenger ships without warning, then promised the U.S. it would stop (the Sussex Pledge) , then changed its mind and resumed its attacks. In late February Britain publicizes the Zimmermann Telegram (intercepted by Britain January 19) , in which the German Foreign Minister instructs his ambassador to Mexico to form an alliance between Germany and the government of Mexico against the United States. One of the promises in the telegram is that Germany will assist Mexico “re-conquer” Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. The American people, in the words of one commenter, are aghast. The timing of the telegram is extremely sensitive; that same month, the U.S. is pulling Pershing and his troops out of Mexico following the unsuccessful “Punitive Expedition” that resulted from Pancho Villa’s raid on Columbus, N.M.
Under the circumstances, it would be easy to assume that the giant is the U.S., that the girls are Britain, Italy, and France, respectively, trying to lure the U.S. out of its isolationism and into war, and that Stevens is writing this as a (somewhat backhanded) protest to the United States’ entry into the war. The third girl calls the giant “le pauvre, ” and decides “to whisper / Heavenly labials in a world of gutturals. / It will undo him.” The contrast between labials and gutturals could be aimed at the difference between the French and German languages, the former being spoken more toward the front of the mouth, the latter composed largely of guttural, back-of-the-throat phonemes. Compare the pronunciation differences between the French “je” and the German “ich, ” for example.
The second girl will “abash” the giant by simply waving a flag: “Arching cloths besprinkled with colors / As small as fish-eggs.” If the roe is red, as in red caviar, the flag could be Italian. If it is orange, it could be the flag of Ireland, but the timing on that is awfully close, because the Irish tricolor was only adopted officially in 1919, after the war. If the roe is black, then the description seems a little disjointed, as between a mourning color and a color as small as fish-eggs. Still, black or beluga caviar could be representative of Russia, which was also an ally at the time. (One could certainly resist this reading, using the premise that if Stevens had meant the flag to be red or orange, white, and green, he would have said so. After all, he was not shy about using colors in his poetry.)
This allegorical approach seems a little more questionable when we look at the first girl, diffusing civil odors of geraniums and “unsmelled flowers” in order to “check” the giant. Geraniums are sometimes said to symbolize melancholy or sadness. I’m not aware of any nationalistic symbolism behind them. They are of course fairly common, and their scent is unique: not particularly sweet, but I think pungent and fresh. I’ve always regarded them as very sturdy, more so than the flowers on a rose, which is one of many traditional symbols of British royalty (any of which Stevens could have used to make the allegory more express—but then the point of allegory is that the meaning is hidden) .
But what are “unsmelled” flowers? They might be considered rare flowers, or flowers that the giant himself has never smelled. Are there flowers that bloom in the U.K. that are “unsmelled” in the United States? I’m certainly not aware of any.
So, one could argue that this allegorical approach falls apart here. But first, consider this: if geraniums are symbols of melancholy or sadness, then perhaps the giant would be checked by the sad, melancholy idea of Britain in defeat and of a Europe dominated by Germany, especially in view of the uncertainty (the unsmelled flowers) of Germany’s relationship with Mexico. The Zimmermann Telegram did, after all, contain a message of sadness and uncertainty for the American people.
On the other hand, perhaps the unsmelled flowers are yet another temptation, much like caviar, for the U.S. to take a more assertive role on the international stage, and join the theater of nations. The unsuspecting, maundering United States is not just threatened by what is going on in Europe, the war itself may be a chance for the U.S. to gain sophistication, take some power, sample some fish eggs, and smell some flowers that it has not previously partaken of.
My own opinion is that for the most part this allegorical approach works. Obviously it has its limitations, but the events of the time seem to fit with the descriptions in the poem.
Another key seems to lie in the fact that the goal of the three girls is not to obtain the protection or assistance of the giant, but to check, abash, and undo him. This is a trade war, not a war of Good and Evil. At the time, the U.S. was not a superpower, but was most emphatically growing and expanding, and there were some who argued early on for the U.S. to participate fully in the war. It does not seem that Stevens shared this view, but instead saw the U.S. as being duped by these other countries into going to war.
So, while this poem can be read as being simply a moment of reflection by the writer on his awkwardness around women, and his attitude that women could consistently get the better of him, it seems to go well beyond that.
Of course, it also remains that Stevens himself seems to have a weakness for the scent of exotic, unsmelled flowers (as well as more common flowers such as geraniums) , French women and the French language, and perhaps lingerie rather than flags. There is also, of course, a bit of paranoia and egotism involved in the notion that women were plotting to get him.